"can you see the head?" : things i heard at the library: an occasional series, # 39

At the Port Hardy library, we serve many marginalized people. They are poor, street-involved, struggling with the intertwined impacts of intergenerational trauma, mental illness, and addiction. The most common impact we see is alcohol addiction. The reasons are no mystery: alcohol is cheap, legal, and readily available. 

I have no doubt that many other people in our community -- people we don't see at the library -- also struggle with alcoholism. The difference is they are able to do that behind closed doors. When you're unhoused, your struggles become public. (We also see many unhoused people who are sober.)

Our staff call the police or ambulance at least three times each week, and we are only open five days. A week with five or six calls is not unknown. A week without any calls is unusual. Often people fall asleep and become unresponsive. Often people become abusive. Often... all kinds of things.

I personally am very calm and accepting of these occurrences, but many people find them triggering and extremely stressful. We document every incident, and I use that documentation to advocate for our staff.

It's in this context that I share this story, one both horrifying and amusing.

On this particular day, staff at the desk alerted me that there was a customer in the public washroom in obvious distress. We grabbed the phone and went together to the washroom; we could hear wails and moans coming from inside. 

I knocked on the door, "Are you OK in there? Do you need help?"

"Yes, yes, please!"

"Do you need medical attention?"

"Yes, help me!"

My co-worker called 911 and we went off to find the spare washroom key, since the public key was in the washroom with the wailing customer. Co-worker called 911 while I opened the bathroom door a bit. The customer was on the toilet with her pants around her ankles, moaning and crying. She said, "I have a kidney stone!"

While we waited for the ambulance, remaining on the phone with the dispatcher, the customer asked if she can speak to the 911 person. I gave her the phone. They were on the phone for what seemed like a very long time, maybe 5-7 minutes. 

The customer then hung up, pushes past me, saying, "I'm having a baby right now. The baby is coming!" 

What the---?

I try to get the woman to stay in the washroom, but she won't go back, pushing both me and co-worker out of the way -- on her way out of the library. It is raining outside, she is half-dressed, and she says she's having a baby. 

I say, "Please stay inside where we can help you," but she swatted me out of the way. 

She walked outside, her clothes dragging behind her, walked to the parking area, and lay down on the asphalt, on her back, in the rain. 

As this was happening, the phone rings, and it's the 911 operator calling back. I tell her, "She's outside now. She says she's having a baby?"

The operator says, "Yes, she may be going into labour. Can you see the head?"

Can I see the head??? 

Do not tell me that a woman is actually going to have a baby in the parking lot in the rain. Co-worker and I looked at each other like, What the actual fuck?!

I went over to the woman, my heart pounding, thinking I would hold her hand or I don't know what. 

Meanwhile some community members who know the woman tell us that she is not pregnant, that she believes she is pregnant and often believes she is about to give birth. Clearly this is part of some mental illness. 

I could exhale.

As this was happening, the ambulance arrived. They took over and my staff and I went back inside to write our reports.

I am usually pretty cool about these incidents, but this one got me going.

Can you see the head??? That's one for the books.